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Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) is a seagoing adventurer known as Black Irish to his shipmates down at the pub. He is the last man who would think of himself as a hero on dry land, but it is he who comes to the rescue of a beautiful blonde Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) as she is about to be raped in the park by three young thugs. He admits to having once killed a man, which seems to rouse Elsa's interest. Soon he is invited on board a yacht owned by her crippled husband Arthur (Everett Sloane), a brilliant trial lawyer who has never lost a case. On that fateful pleasure cruise O'Hara meets the demented and apparently suicidal George Grisby (Glenn Anders), who now offers the Irishman $5000 to kill him.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Leonard Maltin adopts the popular view that Orson Welles was "a uniquely talented artist who was doomed to spend much of his life unable to realise his ambitions." For Goliath's part, Welles would reflect on how he "started at the top (Citizen Kane) and worked down," but very often it was the figurative David who would bring him down. "They" butchered The Magnificent Ambersons (1943); "they" emasculated The Lady From Shanghai (1947); "they" destroyed Touch Of Evil (1958). Goliath was part of the problem. Too often the giant would turn his back on one project to fuss and fiddle with another and that was when David would strike.

Columbia boss Harry Cohn didn't understand Lady From Shanghai and it's true that not many people do. You can see the genius in it all right, but the folly is manifest as well. Cohn, through ignorance, intervened and almost destroyed it, as he imagined that Welles, still married to but estranged from Rita Hayworth, was out to crush her career. Cohn went ballistic when Welles clipped Rita's famous red tresses and dyed them blonde. He was bewildered when Welles adopted the theatrical notions of Bertold Brecht by not only distancing the actors from the emotions of their characters, but from the audience as well. Welles seems especially detached, lurching about the labyrinth plot with a bastard brogue that's about as 'Oirish as spaghetti. He is seemingly in a trance, bedazzled by the Machiavellian intrigue that stalks him, bewitched by the beauteous Hayworth at first but then ambivalent towards her, even dismissive. "Once I'd seen her, I was not in my right mind," O'Hara drones in his opening narration, but it isn't the allure of Elsa alone which brings Black Irish to that yacht (Errol Flynn's) for that regrettable cruise, but his sense of adventure, his need to make money and his own words "when I start out to make a fool of myself there is very little can stop me."

The plot might be impossible (Cohn offered a reward for anyone who could explain it) but it also has a marvellous complexity that is unravelled in a rush at the end. The sly Bannister knows there are moves to murder him, but by who and how? "The best trial lawyer in the world" is crippled and lurches like a praying mantis on his crutches but, as O'Hara says, Bannister is as "helpless as a sleeping rattlesnake." And what of his curious connection with Grisby, Bannister's partner in law and probably in crime. There is no love lost between them, but there is a history and blow me down if Grisby is not one of the most bizarre characters ever created for the screen, a queer little "fella" lurking about, spying, whispering, smirking...even bursting into song when you least expect it. Grisby only wants to "disappear" for reasons that don't make much sense, but only a nutter like Grisby would first enlist O'Hara's aid by asking him to kill him!

And to think that Glenn Anders, who had a long and distinguished Broadway career stumbled from this quite extraordinary performance into oblivion...he didn't make another movie until Nancy Goes To Rio (1950) and then Tarzan's Peril (1951) when he really must have been desperate. Welles abhorred the cinematic cliché and revelled in his own sense of visual style and so he sets his love scene in an exotic aquarium; plays hide and seek in a Chinese theatre and stages his famous Hall Of Mirrors climax in an empty amusement park. Later, Welles makes a bit of a circus of O'Hara's trial. He is defended by the man who wants him convicted; his attorney, Bannister, is placed on the witness stand before cross-examining himself and the court-room resembles a mad house, with two interjecting old biddies, a fat man sleeping and a juror who sits and coughs for pure irritation.

Well, it wouldn't be Wellesian if Welles didn't overplay his hand. And then there's the villainess of the piece. The divorce was imminent but Hayworth still trusted her husband's genius and she desperately wanted to be respected as an actress rather than be revered as a sex goddess. Alas, she falls victim to Welles' Brechtian pretensions. Elsa is a wan and rather vacuous handbag, with no spirit and no soul. If Hayworth had dreamed of recognition as one of the great femme fatales, after Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity), Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) and Bette Davis (The Letter), she rises little above the level of Betty Boop. Perhaps Rita didn't know that Welles didn't want her; that Elsa was first intended for Ida Lupino and then a young French ingénue that Welles had tucked under his wing. In a memo to Cohn, Welles wrote that he wanted to give the entire film a "bad dream aspect...a quality of freshness and strangeness."

But that wasn't what Cohn wanted. He knew of six people who wanted to kill Welles, "but they had to get behind me." One technician died of a heart attack; most of the crew came down with dysentery (in Acapulco) and Hayworth, often in ill health, collapsed on the set. The film soared $450,000 over budget in an age when it might have seemed more like $10 million. After a dismal preview, Cohn brought in a hatchet woman for the big chop; Welles was denied the music he wanted and he complained bitterly that the piece that accompanied Rita's dive into water might be best suited to "a wild jump into space by Donald Duck." Cohn's interference, Welles said, diminished the film by "about 20 per cent" but he also looked on Shanghai as "an experiment in what not to do." He might have taken heed of O'Hara's words in the end, as he wanders off into the vastness muttering "the only way to grow wise is to get old." But then, 10 years later, David slew Goliath all over again on Touch Of Evil.

Published January 27, 2005

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(US, 1948)

CAST: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane

DIRECTOR: Orson Welles

SCRIPT: Orson Welles (nove,l Before I Die by Sherwood King)

RUNNING TIME: 86 minutes

PRESENTATION: 1.33:1 full screen. Languages: English, French, Italian, Greek, German, Spanish, Arabic, Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish, Turkish

SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, Author Of This Is Orson Welles; A Conversation With Peter Bogdanovich Feature; Vintage Advertising Gallery, Talent Profiles, Original Movie Trailer

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Columbia Tri-Star

DVD RELEASE: December 15, 2004

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